Why Do We Read Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) During Sukkoth?

Sukka (סכה) inside the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, 37‒06 77th Street, Jackson Heights, 30 September 2012. (Photograph by Elyaqim Mosheh Adam.)
Sukka (סכה) inside the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, 37‒06 77th Street, Jackson Heights, 30 September 2012. (Photograph by Elyaqim Mosheh Adam.)

Everything about Yom Kippur is spirit; everything about Sukkot physical.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

On the Sabbath that occurs during the week of Sukkoth, it is traditional to read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet. Kohelet is one of those rich, beautiful, and profound “wisdom books” found in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Hebrew Bible. And though many prefer Job, I find Kohelet the wisest of them all.

Were it not for this Sukkoth tradition, most of us would never experience this work in Hebrew. Interestingly, though, many of us know parts of it from the King James English translation. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” “There is nothing new under the sun.” And some parts have been made it into well-known songs: “For everything there is a season — a time to live and time to die…”

One of Hemingway’s best novels is named The Sun Also Rises, and the opening of Shakespeare’s 59th Sonnet is nearly a paraphrase: If there be nothing new, but that which is/ Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d…

As you can tell from just these few excerpts, Ecclesiastes, though poetically beautiful, is also rather gloomy and fatalistic. In fact, if you substitute “futility” for “vanity” — a better translation — it sounds positively depressing. (Other translations that can be derived from the biblical context in which they appear are impermanence, incomprehensibility, absurdity, nothingness, and wind.) On this problem of translation, R. Cover of the Dallas Theological Seminary has this to say:

Kohelet deliberately chose a word (hevel) with a calculated ambiguity; he skillfully employed it in a variety of contexts so that several associated meanings could be communicated without the use of synonyms. . . It must be emphasized that Kohelet nowhere uses hevel pejoratively or with morally negative connotations. For Kohelet hevel is a neutral term expressing brilliantly in its figurative nuances, the limitations of human activity and human wisdom.

In the King James Translation, Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, is some of the best, and the darkest, poetry in English. Consider its introduction:

1:12 I Kohelet was king over Israel in Jerusalem.13. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven; it is a hard task that God has given to the sons of man to be exercised with. 14. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

More than a few scholars have wondered why this book is in the Bible at all, since it appears, on the surface at least, to contradict many of the core beliefs espoused in the Torah. So… Why is it in the Bible? Why do we read it aloud in synagogue? And why during Sukkoth?

About Ecclesiastes

There is a straightforward answer to the question of why Ecclesiastes, a mitzvah-free rumination on the impermanence and futility of life is in the Bible: No one is sure.

Although it enters the canon during the Hellenistic period1, scholars think it is much older and may have had a large constituency among groups that compiled the text. Rabbi Dov Lipman wrote, “Kohelet isn’t really a book with Jewish content; however, because it states that it was written by King Solomon, the sages included it in the Ketuvim, the Writings, division of the Tanach.”

Its message, in effect, is to enjoy life while you can. Understand that “stuff” happens; the good are not always rewarded and the bad are not always punished. There is nothing a person can do to escape death (and there is no mention of afterlife); the rich and poor are headed to the same end. Everything of beauty and value perishes. And there is no greater pleasure in life than the ephemeral happiness of a good meal with the woman you love:

Ecclesiastes 9:4

For to him who is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know nothing, nor do they have a reward anymore; for the memory of them is forgotten.

But Ecclesiastes is not a purely nihilistic essay. Several times The Preacher speaks in praise of Wisdom over folly: for example

Ecclesiastes 9:17

The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

Even though he said earlier

Ecclesiastes 2:13

Then I saw that wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness. 14. The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walks in darkness; and I myself perceived also that one event happens to them all. 15. Then said I in my heart, As it happens to the fool, so it happens even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.

But the question remains. Why is wisdom better than folly? How is one to endure a life of perpetual loss and inevitable futility? And what does Judaism have to do with any of this?

The priests and redactors who defined the contents of the Bible were also worried that the text might obviate many of the teachings of Torah. So, most scholars agree, they added one or two epilogues to the original text.

First, here’s how the author ended his sermon:

12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit

shall return unto God who gave it.12:8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

The first epilogue switches from the first to the third person:

12:9 And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.

12:10 The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. 12:11 The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.

The second epilogue switches back to the first person, but it’s not clear whether Kohelet is being impersonated, or whether the redactor is speaking for himself:

12:12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh22.

12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

12:14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

Although “Fear God and keep his commandments” is a jarring and irrelevant summary to this book, it nevertheless provides the warrant for later Rabbis to extract homilies that contrast the vanity or futility of life with the unswerving rule of God.

Interpretation 1: Temporary versus permanent

Rabbis tend to link the unpredictability of life in Kohelet with the flimsiness of the Sukkah. Professor Paula Hyman, who taught Jewish History at Yale, explains, “The book of Ecclesiastes that we read on the Shabbat of Sukkot reinforces this message of the transiency of our existence with its cry that all is futile.” And what used to be called the UAHC, in its guide to the holiday, tells us, “The most common explanation of Ecclesiastes’ message, that worldly possessions are vain and transitory, corresponds to the central message of Sukkot. Like the sukkah, which is a temporary and vulnerable structure, life itself can be fragile and dangerous.”

Other rabbis point out that, during the time of the fall harvest, especially if it is bountiful, perhaps people need to be reminded that one never knows that a good harvest is coming. The open roof of the Sukkah, our vulnerability to the elements, is meant to humble us, to disabuse us of the idea that safety and survival are man’s lot. And so, to undermine that false sense of power and security, Kohelet reminds us that bad things can happen any time, a harvest can be destroyed by aberrant weather, and that it makes no difference if we are good and honorable people.

And, thanks to the redactors’ epilogue, Kohelet also offers us hope. Orthodox Jewish journalist Amy Kramer, who believes that Solomon wrote Kohelet and that the epilogue was his own work, concludes that:

In contrast to the more sensual Song of Songs, which was written at an earlier point in King Solomon’s life, the book of Kohelet was written after the king experienced of life’s pleasures. Solomon concludes with the message, ”The end of the matter, all having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments; for this applies to all mankind.”

And Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik, (Rosh Yeshiva in Gush Shemonim) goes even further, insisting that pleasure of Sukkoth, the happiness and abundance of the harvest, has nothing to do with physical pleasure at all:

The joy experienced during Sukkot was a spiritual experience that was based on mitzvoth—not superficial, physical factors. In order for a person to feel this unique, spiritually based joy, one must first step back from the pleasures and desires of this world. This is what the megillah of Ecclesiastes is all about and is why it is specifically read on Sukkot. Once we take to heart its lesson that this world is temporary and unfulfilling, we can then learn to experience a new level of joy, through the performance of Hashem’s mitzvot.

Again, these interpretations depend mightily on the epilogue, that awkward appendage that glosses over the profound content of the book. Which of the commandments, for example, protects us from the wisdom that every one of life’s pursuits is merely “chasing after wind”?

Interpretation 2: Inhibition

The second theory is that Kohelet is read mainly to depress people who are feeling too lustily happy.

When one religion conquers another, a straightforward way to win over the forced converts is to integrate some of their old religious festivals and rituals into the new ones, repurposing them enough to dispel the memory of the old ways. For most students of history, the best-known example of this occurred when the northward- expanding Roman Catholic empire convinced the pagans of the north that their Norse Saturnalia was actually Christmas! (Both holidays, of course, and probably Hanukkah as well, were repurposed celebrations of the winter equinox, honored by earlier pagans.)3

Passover, for example, is sometimes referred to as Chag Matzot, which appears to be a pre-Israelite festival.4 If we think of this holiday as a modified fast, meant to facilitate the arrival of the vernal equinox, then we can see easily that Passover, Lent, and Ramadan5 are the later derivatives of this pagan superstition.

Sukkoth, it appears, a harvest festival, absorbed some of the extant fertility rites practiced by the conquered Canaanites. According to Karen Armstrong (in The History of God), “The ancient Canaanite religions were still flourishing in Israel… the Israelites were still taking part in fertility rites and sacred sex there, as we see in the oracles of the prophet Hosea…”

Just as, today, many Jewish communities celebrate the end of Sukkoth—Simchat Torah—with festive dancing and music-making, similarly in the Second Temple era the holiday concluded with an even more raucous celebration called Simcha Beit HaShoeva, the water-drawing festival. The Bavli tells us “He that never has seen the simchat beit hashoevah (the joy of the Water-Drawing) has never in his life seen joy.”

While on the surface, there isn’t anything especially sensual or joyous about pouring water from one vessel to another, the mood and setting were frantic with excitement. Consider this exotic detail from tractate Sukkah:

There were golden candlesticks there with four golden bowls on the top of them. The candlesticks were fifty cubits high. Four ladders led up to each candlestick, and four youths from the priestly stock went up holding in their hands jars of oil, of twenty-four logs’ capacity, which they poured into the bowls.

They made wicks out of worn-out drawers and girdles of the priests, and with them they set the candlesticks alight, and there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect the light of the beit hashoevah.

Apparently, most of the cavorting featured a bird-like display of male-prowess, in which the young priests succumbed to the joy of the occasion with feats of strength and skill for the benefit of a largely female audience. This all-night party has also been characterized as a festival of “sacred juggling.” We read that R. Simeon ben Gamaliel was so adept that, with eight torches going, not one of them touched the ground when he prostrated himself, touched his fingers to the pavement, bent down, kissed it, and at once sprang up (Sukkah 53a).

Rabbi Harry Freedman, who did much of the Soncino translation of the Talmud, tell us that the offering of water on the altar was a recognition of the blessing bestowed by rain. The celebration, centered on light and joy underlined the life-enhancing power of the rains.6

Contemporaneous accounts indicate that thousands of people participated in the ceremony, and that most who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during Sukkoth did so mainly to enjoy the spectacle—which, despite the best attempts of the rabbis to prove otherwise, has no basis in Torah and was, in fact, conducted over the strenuous objections of the senior priests and wealthy Sadducees who found the whole business undignified and embarrassing.

For us today, it is easy to imagine. A quiet, reverential neighborhood suddenly turns into Woodstock once a year. A Catholic publication, the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, has this to say:

Today, this music and dance festival is understood as the one remnant of the old Canaanite fertility rituals… This was perhaps the only occasion where popular music- making was allowed to mix with the otherwise sternly guarded prerogative of Levitical music…Consequently, secular, superstitious, even popular licentious elements were here introduced in the performance of the temple’s liturgical music.

From this point of view, Kohelet is a necessary tranquilizer. “Consider your fate,” the revelers are warned, and that was supposed to take some of the zeal from their celebrating.

I doubt that the theory behind this second interpretation would work, though. I don’t know about you, but when I read Kohelet my inclination is to ask for more wine and louder music!


  1. Fighting vainly against destiny and ultimately succumbing to death is about as Greek a theme as you can find. It is the basis of classical tragedy. ↩︎
  2. Obviously, written before the era of the Rabbis ↩︎
  3. Many believe that Thanksgiving is a repurposed Sukkoth (or Festival of Tabernacles). ↩︎
  4. The explanation for the eating of matzah on Passover is possibly the least credible part of the answers to the four questions. ↩︎
  5. Ramadan moves through the year because the Muslim calendar is lunar. It no doubt began in spring. ↩︎
  6. The insertion of “masheev haruach…” into the Amida is a reference to rain as a fertility symbol. ↩︎

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